‘There’s definitely an accountant shortage out there’: MBAs have become the go-to degree and companies are struggling to hire enough CPAs

Close-up Of A Businessperson's Hand Calculating Invoice At Workplace
The number of companies trying to hire accountants hasn't slowed one bit.
Andrey Popov for Getty Images

Good morning,

Securing the next generation of accountants won’t be easy. It may take some grassroots campaigning by mentors and family members to influence their loved ones to go that path, a technology boost, and a “CPA Evolution.”

“There’s definitely an accountant shortage out there,” says Ben Lansford, an accounting professor and director of the Master of Accounting program at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University. “I hear it from the firms.” And in talking with colleagues at universities nationwide, “we see the declining enrollment in graduate accounting programs,” Lansford says.

In 2021, there was a 17% drop in employed accountants and auditors from a 2019 peak, according to a Bloomberg Tax analysis. But the number of companies trying to hire accountants hasn’t slowed one bit.

Between 2021 and 2031, on average, about 136,400 openings for accountants and auditors are projected each year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’s (BLS) occupational outlook handbook. The openings are due to workers leaving the field for different occupations or retiring.

“In general, employment growth of accountants and auditors is expected to be closely tied to the health of the overall economy,” BLS states in the handbook.

The next generation of accountants and auditors is in demand, but Lansford explained why some are hesitant. “Accounting is difficult,” he says. “It’s just a tough subject area, and you need a fifth year of college education to qualify to sit for the CPA exam. It makes the major less appealing to a lot of people.”

But what needs to be communicated to students and young professionals is the time and energy is worth it, Lansford says. “It’s still a good path,” he says. “A rock-solid foundation.” The Big Four accounting firms are even reaching out to high school students to share that message and creating more flexible work environments, Lansford says.

But it may take a village to get a student interested in accounting.

“I find that often those students have an older family member, parent, aunt, or uncle, or friend of the family who took that same path and counseled the student about the benefits of accounting,” Lansford says.

Over the past three years, Lansford has observed more students in graduate accounting programs choosing consulting jobs because they pay more than being entry-level accountants at a firm, he says. According to the BLS, the median annual wage for accountants and auditors was $77,250 in May 2021.

‘CPA Evolution’

But changes to the CPA are coming—with the hope of attracting tech workers to the profession. “The [American Institute of Certified Public Accountants] is calling it a CPA Evolution, and it’s really an overhaul of the CPA exam,” Lansford explains. Starting in 2024, “everyone will take the same three sections, but for the fourth exam section, you can specialize in financial reporting, auditing, tax, or you can specialize in IT. The goal of the change is to make the tent bigger, so to speak.” That’s an interesting addition, since CFOs are increasingly finding themselves at the center of major IT projects

But one drawback under the new CPA exam model is everyone still gets the same CPA certification, Lansford says. There’s no special designation that you took the IT exam area, he says. “So, we as academics are interested in seeing how things play out,” he says. 

In recent years MBAs seem to have eclipsed CPAs. But maybe the number crunchers shouldn’t be counted out just yet.

See you tomorrow.

Sheryl Estrada

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